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The Effectiveness-Lab

Development and its strategy-myopia monologues – Series 1 of 4

Why are development and its party-goers so fascinated with keeping with ‘what they know’ and not ‘what they don’t know’? Quite a blind spot and one would imagine that it is only a matter of time before the industry is brought to its knees. To my surprise and at times happiness, the industry continues to thrive. In this first of a four blog series, the Effectiveness Lab shall discuss Developments’ strategy-myopia monologues.

Is development asleep? Credit:
Is development asleep?

I strongly relate to lessons from the private sector whenever discussing strategy failings at organisations.  I have employed staff from both development and private sectors – and it is extremely interesting observing the behaviour, work ethic, and attitude of private sector compared to the traditional development staff. Private sector bred staff shall bring to the table a different kind of approach to work: thinking beyond project log-frames (near hatred for log-frames); the tendency to focus on results and the time it takes to achieve results; wanting to invest their valuable time in matters that are relevant i.e. what adds value to the business in the immediate as opposed to ‘what has always been done by the International Civil Society Organisation (ICSO); a business like approach and the focus on ‘doing’ and ‘not talking’; overall, private sector bred staff start by asking ‘what you want them to achieve for you’. Private sector staff tendencies remind me of a recent conversation with a peer CEO in Nairobi: that a leader is as good as a GPS unit; it will get you where you want to go, as long you make clear your final destination. In other words, a leader, however good, is only useful to the organisation if its strategic intent is clear.

Sadly, many development colleagues, are not accustomed to answering in a succinct manner, the question: What do you want to achieve? In a simpler form: what value does your ICSO add to development? It even gets more uncomfortable for development colleagues when we ask: does your client (the poor) believe that what you are providing them will help eradicate their poverty? To give plausible answers to such vexing questions calls for broad and deep strategic analysis and discourse. Strategic analysis and discourse that boldly questions the status-quo at the ICSO and if need be, undo the same.

Many ICSO’s shall attest to delivering broad and deep strategy – and indeed they do, but only in their image. ICSO’s suffer from strategy-myopia, and it is not far fetched to write in this blog that it has become a pro-longed status-quo or monologue as we prefer to call it at the Effectiveness Lab

What is this so-called strategy-myopia monologues at the ICSO?

It is our view at the Effectiveness Lab that development strategy is sometimes about ‘what development wants’ and not ‘what development should do.

Strategy making, complex as it may be, is also a very linear game. It is for this very reason that many ICSO’s have articulated and very well, their identity, strategic intent, value-addition choices, and architecture, all critical elements of a viable strategy. The problem is that this is not always grounded in reality. There are so many factors at play in ICSO strategy making; some of them outside the control of the ICSO while others are within remits of its control.

In all fairness, the ICSO is not to blame fully for the fact that its strategy agenda is flawed and in many instances a paper exercise. For example, an ICSO can spend a month away at a retreat designing strategy, well aware that it does not have the financial muscle to fund its strategic wish list. The ICSO strategy team returns home to the reality that it has to shelve its’ very strategy, for other thinking from the development gods, in many cases contradictory to that of the ICSO. It is for this very reason that quasi-ICSO’s like the Bill Gates and Nike Foundations, with deep and unrestricted coffers, have better traction in their poverty eradication efforts than the so-called traditional ICSO.

Should the ICSO define strategy in the first place? At the Effectiveness Lab, we believe that ICSO’s should define strategy, but only if it is robust and forward-looking. Currently, ICSO strategy is myopic, yet the ICSO seems comfortable with the status quo

Example of strategy-myopia at the ICSO:

Last week, I caught up with one of my peers in development – the head of a renowned ICSO within the great lakes region. We quickly got on to familiar territory in development: the trials and tribulations of devolving every power and resource there is at the ICSO to the native civil society organisation (NCSO). Those of you in development will know the challenges of working in partnership with NCSO’s.

Our conversation quickly evolved to a familiar and painful part of this so called ICSO/NCSO devolution – NCSO corruption. Fast forward and the story ends: NCSO’s working in partnership with this respected ICSO were awarded grants to implement development projects, in partnership with the ICSO and its donors. Sadly, the leadership of the NCSO’s diverted money meant for projects to other business. ICSO’s know that when NCSO’s fail to account for resources given to them, the ICSO suffers for the misdemeanours of the NCSO. In principle, the ICSO shall have to refund money stolen by the NCSO to the donor/s that funded the project.

Next, my peer shared measures, which in their mind, would stem the problem: the solution was typical ICSO stuff: ‘we have to recruit an extra staff for our partnership management unit and further tighten controls’. My counsel to the development peer was: ’this is not about extra staff and controls – unless we are considering tagging electronically, all NCSO practitioners and track them 24/7!?’. This approach to NCSO corruption is strategic-myopia, influenced by the immediate need and search for survival by the ICSO.  The ICSO should search for answers beyond the obvious.  The answers shall lead the ICSO to review its very purpose for existence

Since I started the blog by pitching for the pedigree that private sector bred staff bring to the ICSO thought table, I will in turn ask if someone with private sector roots would bring a new approach when faced with the above NCSO corruption dilemma. Perhaps, private sector folks would vote for terminating contracts of the NCSO’s and take them to court for breach of contract. On an even bigger note, would private sector folks have worked with such NCSO’s in the first place? If they did, would the terms of engagement have been a little more water-tight, coupled with a robust due-diligence process at the time of partner identification and selection? Would private sector folks opt to close country operations in the event of such blatant corruption? Would this be equated to the doctrinal-sin of abandoning the poor? Would the private sector folks simply do the business themselves and forget about NCSO’s?

When you ask all the above questions, you get on to development doctrine territory, doctrine written by one group of people i.e. development gods, taught by another group of people i.e. the ICSO, and practiced by a third group of people the NCSO. Doctrine, teachings, and practice are not always well integrated; doctrine is normally defined in rich nation capitals but taught and implemented in poor nations where doctrine and its practice aren’t the priorities of NCSO’s leadership – their priorities may be a little more personal and selfish than ICSO’s think, and ICSO’s may want to start addressing their strategy myopia monologues from this very point

The tendency by the ICSO to default to what it knows and is comfortable with has to stop. It is our humble opinion at the Effectiveness Lab that the underlying cause of such thinking and practice is strategy-myopia at the ICSO. Moreover, the latter is a deeply ingrained culture; that shall take bold leadership at all ICSO levels, to undo.

My takeaway: we have to ask ourselves – infused in its strategy-myopia monologues, Is the ICSO still relevant? If yes, what should be its identity & strategic intent? What value should it add to development going forward? How should it shape itself for effective value-addition? The next three blogs in this particular series will address these questions

Let us know what you think in the comments column below or via our social media accounts


2 responses to “Development and its strategy-myopia monologues – Series 1 of 4”

  1. You have touched yet another hot pie; what you are calling strategic partnership in ICSO-NCSO relationships, the private sector would call it a business linkage. Before such a linkage is finalized (pen to paper) a proper due-diligence is done to among other things test for strategic fit (how to further set strategic objectives). The other objective would be to test strengths of internal controls for the proposed partner – done to ensure there are no system leakages at the proposed partner.

    Do you do this in the development world? May be yes, may be not! When its done, its done to meet disbursement targets as set by ICSOs not to further strategy. Strategic-myopia “kabisa”.

    But here is even a bigger dilemma, most NCSO do not have strategic focus and in this circumstance it would be very difficult for ICSOs to ascertain strategic fit. Pick for instance an organization implementing a mix of programmes in financial deepening, education, food security, child protection, women empowerment, water and sanitation, psychosocial support, HIV/AIDS, reproductive health, and …………etc. what would be the strategic focus for such an organization?

    In my opinion strategic focus is one of those issues to address. Be known for doing one thing and do it better – Airtel sales airtime and internet, World Food Programme provides food relief, WatsApp is a social media, Sumsung for electronics. Simple!


    1. Seddu – you have nailed it and I surely can’t add more – it’s now for other people to read and heed your call!

      You do put very well the ICSO disease of doing everything there is to do in the world – at some point, it’s all about money (£$) and we should ask if we should flip things around at icso’s and accept we are in the ‘business of implementing projects’ – i.e. That becomes the core business of an ICSO and we can be termed going fwd., ‘development contractors’!!!!

      Two things may happen at an industry level;

      A) Leave matters of sustainability and project design to those that fund projects like dfid etc

      B) A new ‘sectorisation’ of the development industry into:

      1. Subject implementation specialists
      2. Project designers
      3. Monitoring specialists
      4. Value for money assurance firms


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About Me

Apollo B. Gabazira is an Ugandan OD. junkie fascinated by matters that render organisations/individuals effective or not. He blogs on effective leadership and management. He is a devoted green-farmer and breeds the Ayrshire cow at Nakabugu, Luuka district, Uganda. Apollo is quite effective at what he chooses to do.


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